Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Hungry Zimbabweans Forage to Survive

ZANU-PF officials reportedly compounding chronic food shortages by seizing grain delivered to state depot.
By Obert Gumpo
Dumezweni Nare does not remember any time in the past six months when he had a decent meal.

“It is by the grace of the Lord that we are able to speak to you,” said Nare, as he scavenged for wild fruit with a group of visibly hungry villagers in the dry windswept veld a few kilometres outside Gwanda, the provincial capital of Matabeleland South province.

Matabeleland South receives less than 450 millimetres of rainfall per year. At best, it produces just enough food for its people to survive. The southern provinces, while good for livestock rearing, are not suitable for agriculture.

A tour of the area by IWPR revealed that Nare was not alone in his predicament.

At dawn each day, the villagers of this dry and dusty region comb the hinterlands in search of any wildlife or edible wild fruits, in a desperate attempt to put food on the table.

The giant baobab trees that dot the terrain have become about the only source of sustenance. The villagers go first for the fruit, the seeds of which are coated in a white powder which separates from the pips when pounded in a mortar.

Mixed with fresh milk, the powder produces a kind of cream of tartar. People here have this for dinner, although most mix the powder with water instead.

But as the baobab fruit is finished quickly, villagers then go for the roots, which are pounded into a porridge-like paste – known in local languages as amagontsi or umtopi – which serves as their main meal.

As Zimbabwe's economic and political crisis continues, rural areas of the country have been worst hit by severe food shortages and escalating prices.

According to recent statistics from the United Nations World Food Programme, about 5.1 million Zimbabweans will be queuing up for food handouts by October this year.

Nare, a peasant farmer from the Silonga community, said that children have been unable to attend classes in most areas due to hunger.

According to Nare, villagers have not received any grain from the state-owned Grain Marketing Board, GMB, for the past five months.

“But there are some people who have access to the GMB who come [and try to] sell us maize at exorbitant prices,” he said.

“We are now surviving on umtopi. Alternatively, we engage in barter trade. A big goat can get you two 20 kilogrammes of maize.”

However, 20 kg doesn’t last long and the villagers’ livestock is quickly being depleted.

In Gwanda town, hungry residents who have not been given an opportunity to buy maize from the GMB are also resorting to eating porridge prepared from baobab fruits or ground roots.

They say that officials from the ruling ZANU-PF quickly snap up the little grain that is delivered to the GMB’s main depot from South Africa and channel it into the thriving black market.

“I have been coming here daily for a week and a half and they keep telling us that wagons bringing maize from South Africa are coming today,” said Samuel Nare, the only miller in the Manama area of Gwanda South.

“When a few do arrive, the grain is given to the same people, who seem to be enjoying preferential treatment.

"The situation back at home is dire and our people are surviving on fruit and roots like wild animals.”

Just outside the GMB depot, vendors could be seen selling a 20 kg bag of maize meal for 40 Zimbabwe dollars, ZWD. This is out of the reach of most residents, very few of whom earn more than 20 ZWD a month. Most locals are employed at surrounding small-scale gold mines, which are currently in limbo because of the country's ongoing economic crisis.

The situation in town is no better than in the remote countryside.

“Starvation is no longer confined to rural areas and it could be even worse here in town,” said resident Nephat Ndlovu.

“Some households are now going for days without a full meal because they have no access to the foreign currency [needed] to buy maize from the black market.”

In rural parts, councillors are allowed to collect grain from the GMB, which is then sold to villagers in their respective wards.

But according to reports, ZANU-PF former councillors who lost their seats are still allowed to take advantage of this arrangement, collecting grain from the GMB and selling it on.

“Last week, a former ZANU-PF councillor from Enyandeni collected 200 bags from the GMB and gave ten bags to each [ZANU-PF] official in the area for their own consumption,” said Petros Mukwena, the provincial secretary for the Arthur Mutambara-led faction of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC.

"When the new councillor went to collect maize for the ward, only 150 bags, which are hardly enough for the community, remained.

“I have since written to the governor, Angeline Masuku, to protest against this corruption, which has become endemic, but I have not received a satisfactory answer.”

Renson Gasela, the secretary for agriculture in the Mutambara MDC faction, said, “There is no food. It is a fact that the rural population, especially in southern Zimbabwe, is in dire straits. Some of us with rural constituencies are afraid to visit some villages as people have not eaten for days.”

In some parts of the south he has visited recently, villagers were surviving on wild fruit called matohwe and chakata, he said.

“People are eating anything wild that does not kill,” said Gasela, who is a former head of the GMB.

According to Gasela, there is no good reason for the ongoing food shortages.

“There can never be an explanation as to why there is no food when the country has the experience of mobilising and moving food into areas with acute shortages. Someone is not doing his or her job for political reasons,” he said.

Leader of the main MDC faction Morgan Tsvangirai said the situation in rural areas throughout the country was a cause of great concern for him and his party. While Tsvangirai has been in negotiations with Mugabe to reach a power-sharing deal, there is little sign that the men are close to an agreement.

The MDC leader appealed to the mediator in the talks, South African president Thabo Mbeki, to persuade Mugabe to allow humanitarian agencies to resume their work, as millions of Zimbabweans face starvation. The agencies were banned from distributing food in June this year.

“Zimbabwe has become one of the worst man-made humanitarian disasters of a new and hopeful century. An estimated half-a-million Zimbabweans have already died of starvation, malnutrition and preventable diseases,” said Tsvangirai.

“Because of the failed policies of ZANU-PF, more than five million now face starvation and famine. We cannot allow this to happen.”

Obert Gumpo is the pseudonym of an IWPR reporter in Zimbabwe.

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